childhood obesity

Opulence vs. Obesity: Why Being Broke is Bad for Your Health

In Corruption, Empowerment, Food Justice, Nutrition by Brandon Irby0 Comments

Brandon Irby

Brandon graduated with a bachelor's degree in marketing from Marshall University. Despite spending the vast majority of his 20s heavily under the influence of alcohol, and the far heavier burden of negativity, he was able to successfully co-found a non-profit organization with the broad mission of alleviating the numerous social issues associated with poverty in Huntington, WV. Acting on his need for real learning and experience he left home in 2013, and is currently enjoying life on the road: wherever that may lead.

It is safe to say, at this point, that most people on this planet understand that the United States has a massive problem with obesity, and health in general. It is no big secret that preventable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, are killing people at an astonishing rate. There is plenty of blame to be passed around if that is the route you would like to go. We could blame the fast food industry for offering sugar-laden beverages in five gallon buckets for “only $.25 more!” Some may choose to blame the advertising industry for directly targeting developing children. That would be fair. For some kids, happiness is brought to fruition daily by a cheap plastic toy inside a vibrantly colored box. It would be nearly impossible to find someone who has spent any amount of time in front of a television who could not recognize a number of cereal box slogans or restaurant mascots. These are valid arguments that must be addressed to some degree. However, I would like to take a different approach. I am going to look at several ways in which obesity is directly linked to poverty. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. I only intend to shine light on alternative perspectives.

Obesity – The Bigger Picture

I come from the land of the large. I fully understand what it means to be fat. At different times in my life I have lost close to 100 pounds and, years later, around 60 pounds. My hometown, Huntington, West Virginia, is always in the running for the number one spot on various top ten lists. These lists generally include fattest city, least healthy, and most unhappy. Not exactly the kind of lists in which one takes pride. Again, there are many things that could be blamed, but I am going to focus on populations of lower income and the amount of education people are provided on what they are consuming.

The aim of this article is not to bring shame or pass judgement on anyone or any one group of people. Although it seems common sense to most, the level of income a person has is very rarely indicative of the amount of time and energy they spend working. George Monbiot beautifully states, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” The corrupt, and ever persistent, systems in which people feel forced to abide leave them with very little time, and even less discretionary income after their monthly debts are settled. These two things have an enormous impact on the purchasing decisions of people trying to provide for themselves and their families.

When one takes these things into account, it is easier to understand why someone would choose pre-packaged, microwavable meals over fresh fruits and vegetables. Even if personal taste and money were not to be taken into consideration, the amount of time saved by tossing a tray, of what appears to be food, in the microwave and hitting a button is significant. Few people in modern times are afforded an abundance of free time. Employed Americans often spend 40 or more hours per week at one or more jobs. The U.S. Census Bureau claims that the average commute time to work is 25.4 minutes, but this figure fails to account for time spent taking kids to school, dance class, or baseball practice. We are encouraged to be great multitaskers. Many people even take pride in their ability to juggle multiple aspects of their lives at one time, but at what cost? Certainly in this lifestyle something must suffer, and all too often it is diet. The nasty cycle of sacrificing health for work seems even more detrimental when you consider that this is exactly how learned behaviors occur in children.

While this is most apparent and easiest to illustrate through the images of family life, it should not be left unsaid that similar dietary decisions are made by college students, retired persons, and people at every stage in between. Anyone pressed for time could potentially be faced with these same difficult choices.

There are countless variables that could potentially be restrictive of one’s time for preparing meals, and many will claim that this is attributed to laziness, lack of willpower, even a lack of discipline. However, one undeniable link between obesity and poverty is the outright lack of fresh foods.

Studies clearly show that those with better access to fresh food have a lower risk of obesity, and many other diseases associated with being overweight. [1] What is generally left out of these studies is that much of this is by design. People have been taught to believe that buying organic, locally grown food is just too expensive to be a viable option when eating on a budget. Couple this with the fact that many grocery stores and organic markets simply shut down shops in low-income neighborhoods: either for lack of profit, or in attempt to uphold a particular brand image. This has a multi-faceted impact on the community. Jobs are lost, fresh foods become nearly inaccessible, and people are forced to turn to “corner stores” or other types of convenience stores as their primary sources of food. These areas have now been dubbed “food deserts”: as if a natural feature of the impoverished landscape. This is typically indicative of an urban setting, but it also happens in rural areas around the country.

Many communities have welcomed the “big-box” stores with open arms only to find that almost every other business in the vicinity get snuffed out. They simply cannot compete when residents choose to embrace convenience over community. People are then forced to either shop at the closest “supercenter”, drive to a different town, or grow their own food. You can decide for yourself which is the most likely option.

The American Diabetes Association is well aware of the connection between low-income areas and obesity, and it has been for years. It openly states, In contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity.” [2] There is a plethora of information, theories, and studies available that have been documenting this link for decades. All one has to do is conduct a quick internet search, grab another cup of coffee, and clear their schedule so they may wade through the various charts, graphs, and scientific studies.

Clearly the information is there, so why is it not common knowledge? Why are impoverished neighborhoods stripped of nutritionally dense foods and left with sugary, genetically modified trash? There are several answers to those questions that may be more insidious than some people are willing to consider, but the way we have been taught to think is clearly not working so I propose that it is time to look at things from a different perspective.

It is no great secret that the United States government is lousy with lobbyists, and many of these lobbyists work in the fast food, meat, and dairy industries. McDonald’s is the world’s largest purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, and is the second largest purchaser of chicken, behind KFC. Practically overnight, McDonald’s became the number one buyer of red apples in the US simply by adding apple slices to its menu. [3] With that kind of purchasing power it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to think that McDonald’s would push to remove any forms of competition. It would also be naive to think that that fight could possibly be fair. When the duo of Walmart and fast food restaurants venture into the neighborhood, very few mom-and-pop shops stay to play. Locally owned, small businesses become absolutely voiceless compared to the multinational giants that frequently overrun small towns. All they have to do is come into the town spewing rhetoric about bringing jobs and countless other empty promises. This has served as the blueprint for destroying previously vivacious communities for many, many years.

Even when parents try to be conscious of what their children are eating, it is impossible to control every aspect of a child’s diet. The most effective forms of learning are generally those that involve a hands-on method. Unfortunately, this type of learning occurs daily at public schools across the country. Rather than being a nourishing part of a kid’s day, lunchtime has become nothing more than a feeding ritual where children shovel trays of glorified gruel into their mouths, and wash it down with government subsidized baby cow growth formula or soda. This process only supplements arguments claiming the current system of education serves as a hindrance to growth, rather than encouraging it.

While it is an amazing thing that children from poor families may be provided breakfast and lunch at school, it must be said that the content of these meals is almost always set by people who have a vested interest in the sale of meat and dairy products. These industries are notorious for food and human safety violations. The fruits and vegetables kids are given are almost never organic, and can be guaranteed to contain a concoction of pesticides and herbicides. These are made from petroleum and sold by agrochemical corporations, both of which have unimaginable influence on government policies. These types of conflicts of interest make it nearly impossible to trust the food that is being provided, and, almost all of the time, these same industries are responsible for funding the studies and organizations that are supposed to be keeping them in check.

A straight shot of a tray of a typical schooll unch tray consisting of chicken nuggets, tater tots, an orange, cookies and milk.

A straight shot of a tray of a typical school lunch tray consisting of chicken nuggets, tater tots, an orange, cookies and milk.

As if all this were not enough, the void of exercise in the daily lives of the average American is exacerbated by the literal lock down that children endure for eight hours while at school. Kids are told they need to exercise in order to be healthy, but, as is usually the case, what they are told to do and what they are shown how to do are two completely different things. The amount of time spent teaching kids sustainable ways of staying active is minuscule in comparison to the amount of homework and testing that gets stacked on their plate.

This is an extremely complex issue that generally leads to the cycle of stress that people have come live with, and even perceive as normal. When you begin to look at each individual aspect of this problem it appears staggering. If it seems to you that this pattern of poor education, poor diet, and poor people is the result of some sinister design, you are not alone. The totality of my life up to this point has led me to believe, with unwavering conviction, that there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything happening today is happening because it is part of a plan. Nothing is occurring by mere chance or accident.

What can we do?

A solution to this issue is of dire importance, as it is literally killing American citizens. People are made sick by being kept poor, and kept poor, at least partially, by being made sick. Western medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance corporations gorge themselves on profits created by the system of malicious misinformation and malnutrition.

“History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.” -Carter G. Woodson

The solutions to this conundrum may, at first glance, appear to be a regression in human progress; however, our current views of progress are, at best, illusions, and at worst, traps. Progress traps occur when technology advances in a direction that is detrimental to a society. So to take a step back and re-evaluate where we would like to go as a species is by no means the worst thing that could happen.

The first part of the solution is to break away from the idea that everything we have been taught is true. I know this gets driven into the ground, but it is of utmost importance for us to learn to be open-minded, and to learn to educate ourselves. Reading trendy magazine articles on nutrition is usually ineffective because they are generally funded by industries that profit from keeping people in a sort of health purgatory: not quite dead, by definition, but never completely healthy either. Learn to ask the right questions. Teach yourself to not reject new ideas outright. Train yourself to push past cognitive dissonance so that you may have a chance to digest differing thoughts. It is entirely possible to listen to an opposing opinion and not change your own.

Refamiliarize yourself with actual, nutrient-dense foods. An internet search of the words “kale” and “recipe” may just change your life. While at the grocery store, walk slowly through the produce section. Shopping along the outer walls of the grocery store will keep you away from most of the processed garbage that requires an entire marketing department to convince people they need it. If you choose to eat meat, dairy, or eggs, educate yourself on the potential dangers of antibiotics and hormones that are injected and fed to animals.

Finally, make an attempt to participate in the growing of your own food in some form or fashion. This will help you reconnect with what you are feeding your body. You do not necessarily have to buy a tractor or spray paint “FARM USE” on the side of your vehicle to grow edible plants. Take a walk through a community garden or a farmer’s market. Fresh herbs will grow in your kitchen window. Potatoes will grow in an unused flowerbed. Again, make the internet your friend. It is capable of so, so much more than Facebook and cats.

As always, my message is one of taking responsibility for our own actions. We need not be told how to live every aspect of our lives by media conglomerates or political puppets. We are all beautiful, creative people. Like the internet, we are capable of much more than Facebook and cats. All we have to do is stop looking at what is wrong, and start focusing on what we feel is right. In the end, this planet belongs to each and every living being that inhabits its surface. Who better to decide what is best for your own personal slice of heaven than you?

References:

  1. http://thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/grocerygap.original.pdf
  2. http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/11/2667.full
  3. http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/how-mcdonald-s-has-shaped-the-food-biz-1.3074081

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